A ‘ Kentucky Derby Weekend’ Tribute to the Remarkable Dr. Bill Duncan

Bill Elizabteh Duncan 1968

Bill and Elizabeth Duncan, 1968

I’ve met many outstanding people in my long and convoluted career, but without doubt, the most unique and special person was Dr. W.G. (Bill) Duncan with whom I spent a year’s post doc at the University of Kentucky (UK).

Twenty-eight years ago, Dennis Egli at UK wrote a tribute and eulogy published in the Journal of Agronomic Education. This column is about my year with Bill, which began on Kentucky Derby weekend, 51 years ago.

In early 1968, I was finishing my third of three degrees at the University of Guelph and wondering what I (or rather, wife Dot and I) would do next. Finding a university position in those days was no concern – there were lots – and I knew that I would likely end up on the faculty at Guelph, so it seemed important to get some experience elsewhere, ideally outside Canada. I visited, considered, and was treated royally by several US universities – and was offered an exciting job with Pioneer in Johnston, Iowa. (I’d love to enlarge on the latter as it involved the opportunity for lengthy interaction with some corn legends including Drs. Bill Brown, Don Duvick, Forrest Troyer – and Ray Baker. Baker was brother-in-law of Pioneer’s founder Henry Wallace and with Pioneer from the beginning – but I will maybe leave that for another blog.)

In the end, I opted for a year in the Agronomy Department at the University of Kentucky. While only a 10-hour drive from Guelph, Lexington was located on the opposite edge of the North American Corn Belt – a very different growing environment. A sub attraction was chance to get to know Appalachia, just to the east of Lexington. But the biggest draw was the opportunity to work with Bill Duncan, one of the most unusual personalities in the world of plant research.

As it turned out, I was the only grad student or post doc that Bill ever had, (post docs were quite uncommon then, but grad students were aplenty.) I guess that makes me unique as well.

Lexington in May

Lexington Kentucky in early May.

Bill never talked much about his past, other than his love for Hopkinsville and Christian County KY where he’d spent most of his life. But I learned from others how he’d sold a farm fertilizer business and returned to Purdue for a PhD degree. Egli details that well in his tribute.

I was also told that while he had offered to work free at the University of Kentucky, he was actually paid $1 per year; the payroll listing enabled him to have a library card.

The story was that he was very wealthy, but we saw few signs of it. He and his wife drove cheap cars and lived simply in a modest bungalow. His one luxury item was a Cessna 210 that they used to fly often (with Dot and me on board frequently) to interesting places all across the US. I found out years later that Bill Duncan came from a long line of W.G. Duncans who had once owned a coal mine in western Kentucky (you can Google for more information; see photo below). The coalmine business was sold to the giant Peabody Coal Company and the W.G. Duncan I knew became a multi-multi millionaire. But, except for the plane, almost none of this showed.

I arrived first in Lexington (Dot came later) on Kentucky Derby weekend, first weekend in May, the time of year when Kentucky looks its best – and it sure looked beautiful for someone arriving from Ontario where daffodils were just flowering. After church on Sunday morning, Bill suggested we fly in the Cessna to have lunch with an acquaintance in Starkville Mississippi, and that we did  – maybe an hour and a half trip, returning a couple of hours later when it was still light. (From that, I got the idea from that Starkville and Lexington were closely located – an error corrected a few months later when we had occasion to drive it – almost as far as from Guelph to Lexington.)

Duncan's plane 1968

The beloved Cessna. Bill filling it with fuel for another jaunt. Dot and Elizabeth to the right.

Bill and his wife loved great restaurants too. One Friday they flew us up to Purdue, supposedly to check out something from a Purdue scientist, but the real reason was dinner at a Morris Bryant restaurant in West Lafayette – then overnight at the Purdue U student union and back to Lexington on Saturday morn. Bill and his wife Elizabeth treated us like family and to many family events we went; I’d love to enlarge on that but won’t. They were so kind.

However, what I appreciated most from Bill was what he taught me about crop physiology, agronomy and the pursuit of science. Bill was unique in that he had no research funding nor any interest in pursuing such. What he did in the way of fieldwork was minimal – and all done using borrowed help, land space and other resources. In fact, I think the year I was there may have been his only one with field plots. We planted one small demonstration for him and a replicated test for me in half a day.

So, with no research requests to submit or reports to file, no teaching and no admin responsibilities, he was unique but also very busy – spending his time visiting with other faculty members, travelling the country and the world to meet others, reading, thinking and writing – especially the latter two. He had a flair for computer programming and this led to the development of sophisticated crop canopy models for which he garnered international fame, as described by Dennis Egli. In those days, there was no charge to him to use the UK computing facilities. That worked well for a prof with no operating budget – and the same for a post-doc without operating funds, too!

Because of Bill, I had a short but useful career as a crop modeller too. Here’s one publication

Kentucky was then at the forefront of research and farmer experience on no-till agriculture, and Bill made sure that I was well exposed to that. We toured many plots, met farmers, and had many discussions on why plants performed as they did. That experience led directly to my strong interest in no tillage and my first no-till plots at Guelph in 1969.

Perhaps the highlight of the year was our discovery of the significance of the black layer as an indicator of physiological maturity in corn. When I had visited and been interviewed by Pioneer earlier in 1968, Don Duvick had loaned me his PhD thesis from Washington University in St, Louis. In it, Don had briefly described the formation of a dark ‘closing’ area in corn kernels as they matured. I had only skimmed this briefly, but Bill read it more thoroughly and mentioned this in our discussion the next day.

What followed was some daily kernel sampling of the four hybrids I’d planted that spring, A paper followed, The black layer and grain maturity in corn. The black layer is known by pretty much everyone who works these days with corn.

Black layer in corn Dupont Pioneer

Black layer development in corn. Photo courtesy of DuPont Pioneer.

Duncan had a million ideas, some which he could test using the UK computer (no desktops in those days, only the UK mainframe) and many others that he tested with endless discussions involving me and most of the Agronomy faculty.

Then the year was over and my scholarship funding from the Canadian NSERC program ended. It was time to move on. Dot and I moved back to Guelph.

Our ties with the Duncans weakened after that. He was disappointed that I didn’t go into international agriculture where he thought I’d contribute most, and my interest in agricultural extension (working directly with farmers) did not appeal to him to him at all. But we kept in close touch for many years, including his years spent in Florida, as Dennis Egli describes.

As a footnote, I had the opportunity, 33 years later, when I became an unpaid adjunct faculty member in Land Resource Science, University of Guelph, to try to emulate what Bill Duncan had done decades earlier at UK. However, it was different. You needed money for everything – use of the university computer, access to any greenhouse space, attend conferences and more – and I had no desire to rejoin the rat-race-chase for research money that I’d known 20-30 years before. The conversations that I had with other faculty members were just as rewarding as what I’d remembered from my UK days, but my attempt to become another ‘Bill Duncan’ proved largely unfulfilled. After a year and half, I moved on to something else.

I’ve had a career that has ranged widely: several years as a crop scientist at U Guelph and then exec VP for a major farm organization, stints as a university administrator, CEO of a bio-auto organization, and endeavours in renewable fuels, bioproducts, communications and nearly five decades of farming. But, the most productive and enjoyable was likely our year in Kentucky with Bill Duncan. I treasure every day we were there.

Duncan coal mine tokens

For history buffs: Token coins used as currency for employees of the W.G. Duncan Coal Company in Western Kentucky. A generation earlier than the W.G. Duncan I knew.

 

 

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